Call me nostalgic, but the Grand National ain’t what it used to be
If I had to name three highlights from a lifetime, too much of which has been spent watching televised sport and too little reading Homer and Hesiod, they would be against the All Blacks in 1973 (though that final pass from Quinnell was surely forward), Geoffrey Boycott’s , and Red Rum’s third Grand National victory, also in 1977. The fact that all three come from the 1970s no doubt demonstrates how important sport was to the teenage me, but it might also suggest how central sport was then to the national psyche.
In , published in 1948, TS Eliot included Derby day and the FA Cup final in his cultural unifiers, alongside wensleydale cheese, beetroot in vinegar and the music of Elgar. For Eliot, sport was part of “organic” society: it was in the soil and the soul; it had a resonance, a meaning beyond the moment or the match itself.
That’s why of the three events I’ve listed, it is Red Rum’s third triumph that easily wins the day. He had won twice and been second twice in the previous four races, and here he was, in his dotage, coming back to win “like a fresh horse” as the great said in his BBC commentary, in front of an adoring crowd on the course and a vast audience on TV. It was a TS Eliot moment: a nation stopping for a moment for this act of shared homage.
They don’t make them like that any more. Red Rum was of course a once-in-a-lifetime horse – trained to greatness by Ginger McCain from the back of a car showroom in Southport – but something more fundamental has changed. Just as the Derby is now just another weekend horse race rather than a nation-stopping Wednesday ritual, and the cup final can be safely ignored, whereas once coverage started at 9am on a Saturday with a not-to-be-missed opportunity to meet the players’ kids, so the has become just another long-distance steeplechase.
The reason the country no longer stops for the National is partly cultural: we do other things on Saturdays now, don’t watch the telly as families any more – once everyone would have had a bet and been glued to the race – and might just glance at the result on a smartphone instead. Society has fragmented; it is no longer organic; there are no more TS Eliot moments. But the Aintree authorities have also undermined the race by making it too easy: the old wooden stakes in the fences have been removed, so ; the fearsome ditch at has been levelled, and other modifications have been made in response to a sustained campaign by animal rights activists who said the race was cruel.
The at Becher’s in 1987 was a key moment in the battle between the sport and the animal rights pressure groups. Dark Ivy was a grey – instantly visible in any race, beloved of casual punters – and strongly fancied to win. When he fell at Becher’s first time round and broke his neck in a horrible fall, the whole mood of the race changed from celebration to wake. Few remember that year’s winner, Maori Venture, but many will recall with horror the death of Dark Ivy. It was the moment many fell out of love with the race.
National-haters are of course entitled to their opinion. Tragic deaths do happen, but they happen in all racing, with jockeys at risk as well as the horses. Experts suggest a horse is more likely to die in a hurdle race (over much smaller obstacles) on hard ground at some out-of-the-way course than they are in the National, where horses run more slowly because the race is longer and they are jumping bigger fences. But the National, being the National, gets all the attention.
Old-timers, like me I suppose, dislike the way the race has been neutered. In 2013, after the first race over the remodelled obstacles, jockey-turned-pundit ; indeed of the new National itself. “It used to be a jumping test, but no longer,” he said. “It is a joke and horses like Grittar, who won in 1982, wouldn’t succeed now because they wouldn’t be quick enough. In the past you needed a special type of horse to jump round Aintree. They looked at the bigger fences and backed off themselves, yet on Saturday they were going faster as they got closer to the jumps.”
In 2006, , who five years later. McCain could see the writing on the wall in terms of what was happening to the race. “In any sport you don’t improve it by making it easier,” he told me. “Top-class sport is supposed to test and stretch the individuals that compete in it. Aintree and the fences are unique, and in making them easier the danger was that they were just going to make it into a 4½-mile staying chase. That would have killed the character of the race.” Which is, indeed, what happened. Thank goodness McCain wasn’t around in 2013, or the explosion would have destroyed most of Liverpool.
There will be no more Red Rums, and no more Red Marauders either. in 2001 when only four horses finished, and two of those had fallen and been remounted (something that is no longer allowed on equine safety grounds). The going will be soft again this year, and it will be interesting to see how many finish over the new fences.
Perhaps sport can never be the way it was when you were young. captured that melancholic notion perfectly : “For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast, / And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost, / And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host / As the run stealers flicker to and fro, / To and fro: / O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!” What did cricket at the turn of the 20th century have to offer, compared with the games Thompson had loved growing up in Lancashire in the 1870s?
Increasingly I know how he felt. Cricket is having a collective nervous breakdown in the face of , which is turning the sport into baseball; rugby is played by gym-obsessed monsters and so many substitutions are allowed that it’s impossible to keep up with who is on the field (oh, for the days when there were no substitutes and players with broken jaws would have to carry on regardless); and racing, poor racing, is dying. Few now know the names of the leading jockeys (once, was a legend); flat racing is dominated by international conglomerates; the Derby and National are well past their Eliotian prime and heading for a wasteland. Yes, the football juggernaut – that endless, tedious, self-consuming soap opera – rolls on, but only fools glory in football. Either sport is half-dead or I am. Oh, my Boycott and my Rummie long ago!
• Stephen Moss is a feature writer at the Guardian